2012-06-08 (heritage.org and by Dean Cheng)– The 11th Shangri-La Dialogue, formally known as the IISS Asia Security Summit, recently concluded, with defense ministers, military officers, and other government officials and scholars from 27 Asia–Pacific nations in attendance. Noticeably absent from the annual conference this year were senior Chinese leaders, limiting discussion of such pressing security issues as the tensions in the South China Sea.
For this multilateral conference, the Chinese dispatched a delegation headed by Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, vice president of the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This is a far cry from previous years, when the Chinese defense minister or other more senior officers led the way and China was applauded for an apparently more transparent approach to regional security.
In failing to send any senior officials to the Shangri-La conference, Beijing is reinforcing a message of growing antagonism toward the U.S. and its allies, as reflected in a series of comments in the Chinese state-run media and from regular Chinese commentators. On the eve of Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Australia, a retired senior Chinese officer, Song Xiaojun, proclaimed that Australia needed to find a “godfather” and had to choose between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Song helpfully added that Australia “depended on exporting iron ore to China ‘to feed itself,’” implying that the wrong choice could have economic as well as security consequences. This echoes China’s curtailment of exports of rare earth minerals to Japan after the 2010 spat over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands.
Meanwhile, Chinese papers have accused the U.S. of creating tensions in the region. A column in People’s Daily, the state-run official Chinese newspaper, charged the U.S. with “muddying the waters” over the South China Sea. And on the eve of the Shangri-La Dialogue, a People’s Daily editorial warned that territorial disputes over the South China Sea were issues between China and its neighboring states: “They are none of America’s business, and China will not allow the US to insert itself.”
China ’s Reasoning
In this light, the Chinese decision to downgrade its participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue is troubling. Rather than take advantage of the opportunity to interact with other top military leaders, the Chinese made clear that there would be only the most limited engagement possible.
It is possible that the decision to downgrade attendance at Shangri-La was due to the impending Chinese leadership transition. Not only is the top civilian leadership going to be overhauled (with General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao stepping down in favor of Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and possibly Wang Qishan, among others), but most of the top military leadership, the Central Military Commission (CMC), will also be retiring. Only a few officers are likely to remain, including General Chang Wanquan, director of the General Armaments Department, which is responsible for weapons development and China’s space program; Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the PLA Navy; and General Xu Qiliang, commander of the PLA Air Force.
Thus, it is possible that the senior Chinese military leadership did not want to attend Shangri-La for fear of making misstatements or being challenged by other attendees. Yet, General Liang Guanglie, the Chinese minister of defense, visited the U.S. and participated in an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference in advance of the Shangri-La conference. This would suggest that alternative factors are at work. The spate of negative editorials and comments raises the possibility that Beijing is implicitly posing a choice to the region: America or the PRC.
This is problematic, as East Asia as a whole would prefer not to choose between Beijing and Washington for both security and economic reasons. No one in the region would benefit from the tensions of a new Cold War, and the interlinking economies would almost certainly be hurt. Yet, by arguing that China should draw a line, or that Australia (and presumably other states) should choose a “godfather,” it is Beijing—not Washington—that is forcing such a choice on East Asian states.
In this situation, the United States has a golden opportunity to expand its range of relations. The ongoing focus on the Pacific enunciated by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is a good, albeit limited, first step. Expanding U.S. military interactions, including a broader range of exercises and visits, is an important step. But many nations ask, rightly, where the forces to support the much-heralded “Asia pivot” will come from, especially as the prospect of budget sequestration looms, exacerbated by President Obama’s promise to veto any spending bill that eliminates the defense spending cuts.